In the area of West London where I live, the Council’s huge lorries appear every Wednesday to collect our rubbish and recyclables. The latter are supposed to be sorted into their large colour-coded bags: white for plastics, green for garden waste, blue for paper; additionally, there is a large dark green box for all else. Bags and box must be put out by 7 a.m., which is a bit of a bore, but at least it lets me glimpse some neighbours in their dressing-gowns and slippers.
So far so dull, but please stay with me, the real story starts here. The Council’s lorries don’t arrive until later, so I have time for a morning walk, which is more than just exercise: it serves as my systematic study – anthropological fieldwork, if you like – of my neighbourhood. Like many parts of London, it is distinctly un-neighbourly, but my inoffensive research gives me a unique insight into the personal habits and lifestyle choices of its unknown inhabitants.
All I need to do is to walk along slowly and inspect the contents of the green boxes. What variety, what precise indications they offer! To start with, we seem to have quite a few serious drinkers among us; boxes bursting with wine and spirit bottles week after week make me worry about the livers of those who had emptied them. But then green boxes full of soft drink bottles, cartoons and multiple containers of sweets and salted crisps are not reassuring, either. The venerable experts who periodically issue official warnings about the ravages of alcoholism and obesity need only join me on my morning walk to see the proof of the problem close up. Booze and junk food rule o.k., warnings go unheeded, and the cash-strapped struggling NHS has to pick up the bill. As a disillusioned doctor friend of mine said the other day, the food industry and the pharmaceutical industry are in cahoots: the former makes us sick and then passes us on to the latter for the rest of our lives. After thirty years in general practice I expect he knows what he is talking about.
No, I’m not a health nut. I just like good fresh food and refuse to pay for expensive over- packaged rubbish. A box I pass is full of tins. I mean brim-full. The tin on the top had contained new potatoes in salty water – heavens above, at a time when fresh new potatoes are at their sweet youthful best, tasting fantastic if gently steamed, coated in butter, sprinkled with fresh parley – oh, sorry, sometimes I do get carried away, although my research should be dispassionate and neutral. I’ll try to cool it. Honest.
Besides disclosing their owners’ food and drink consumption, the boxes also betray some aspects of their characters. There are some meticulous individuals who organise their rubbish so neatly that it looks like a still life worth photographing; I don’t expect the dustmen notice its awesome symmetry before chucking it into the collective hell of their lorry. In these exemplary well organised boxes small carton wrappers sit in plastic bags, old socks and other textiles ditto, used batteries are segregated from carefully folded packaging material, and the box itself is clean and shiny. I fantasize about the house behind the box: all spotless, not a rug out of place, small objects resting at right angles on a polished table —- it’s too perfect for comfort, let me out of there!
So I land straight in the opposite reality: a box containing an unholy mess of things, all mixed up, chaotic and inevitably messy, too, for the unrinsed jars and bottles drip stuff onto crunched up newspapers and unflattened containers, and a single dirty slipper sits on top of a broken plastic toy. This, too, should be photographed and widely shown as an example of how not to handle one’s rubbish, but that’s beyond my remit. And then I suddenly remember once seeing the woman who lives in that house: she has remained memorable for standing at her front door in the scruffiest garment I’d ever seen, with hair and shoes to match, and even her cat looked distinctly ungroomed. It was depressing, but it proved that the contents of green boxes disclosed the truth about the people who had filled them.
There is also the pleasure of seeing the wildly different house numbers owners draw or paint on their boxes. Some are highly fancy, glittering with gold paint; others are plain black and official looking, yet others are surrounded by carefully coloured floral decorations, possibly drawn by a child of six. By the time I finish my morning census I feel as if the neighbourhood had become less buttoned up, more friendly, certainly not secretive. Moreover, it amuses me to think that I know rather a lot about a lot of people who know nothing about me. (Careful, now: this is supposed to be a detached social experiment, not an ego trip.)
What about my own green box? Well now, let me see…